CDC to release new safety guidelines for reopening schools

States may be provided incentives to reopen schools, according to Vice President Mike Pence.
Image: U.S. Vice President Pence leads White House coronavirus task force briefing at the Education Department in Washington
Vice President Mike Pence at a White House coronavirus task force briefing with Dr. Deborah Birx, the response coordinator, on Wednesday.Carlos Barria / Reuters

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By Sara G. Miller and Jane Weaver

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release additional guidance next week on how to reopen schools safely, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday during a White House coronavirus task force briefing at the Department of Education.

The guidance, however, is only a recommendation and will not replace state and local decision-making, Pence said.

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Recommendations on reopening schools have been available on the agency’s website since mid-May, and more guidance was added last week on COVID-19 testing in schools.

The briefing Wednesday came only a few hours after President Donald Trump said in a tweet that he disagreed with the CDC's "very tough & expensive guidelines for opening schools."

During the briefing, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield echoed the task force's stance on the importance of reopening schools, adding that the agency's additional guidelines should not be used as a rationale to keep schools closed.

"It’d be very disappointing if individuals were using guidelines for not reopening schools," Redfield said. The CDC is prepared to work with states and communities to come up with the best strategies to reopen schools, he said.

Redfield noted that children appear to be less susceptible to the coronavirus.

“Clearly the ability of this virus to cause significant illness in children is very limited,” Redfield said.

However, data on COVID-19 cases in school-age children is also very limited. The task force's coordinator, Dr. Deborah Birx, said that children under 10 represent the least-tested age group in the country.

Birx also raised the issue of how to best test children for the virus, though the CDC’s current guidance leaves the decision to implement any testing strategy up to schools and state and local health officials.

Spit tests, which look for the virus in saliva, would be easier for kids, Birx said. The tests are not yet widely available and it's unclear whether they will be available for school children in the South who typical start going back to school in August.

The U.S. is already straining to keep up with demand for diagnostic tests in states with rising cases. During the Wednesday briefing, Dr. Brett Giroir, the assistant secretary of health and human services who oversees U.S. coronavirus testing, said a fourth federal "surge" testing site would be added in West Phoenix, Arizona. On Tuesday, Giroir said three temporary testing sites would be opened in Florida, Louisiana and Texas to help those states cope with spikes of new coronavirus cases.

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Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar acknowledged that there are some risks associated with reopening schools, but that there are risks to keeping kids at home as well.

Last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued detailed recommendations on how to reopen schools safely, emphasizing the importance of school for children's health and well being.

“The AAP strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school,” the guidance said.

Neither Pence nor Redfield specified which current CDC recommendations were too tough for schools to follow, as Trump said in his tweet, but one guidance is for students to social distance and be kept 6 feet apart, which could be difficult for many schools. It’s one reason some school districts are considering hybrid models. On Wednesday, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city’s 1.1 million students would return in September with a hybrid learning model. Under the proposal, most students across the city's 1,800 schools would be in class two or three a week and do remote learning on the other days.

“We don’t want the guidance to be too tough,” Pence said, adding, however, that the president has made clear that every state should take steps to get students back in the classroom to the fullest extent possible.

He added that the federal government would consider providing incentives for states to go forward with reopening schools.

The task force did not address guidance or protections for teachers or other adults in schools.

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